When you grow up with him, you get an idea of his work ethic. He deserves every bit of this. – Brad Sorensen
Daniel Sorensen, the Kansas City Chiefs' third-year safety via BYU, is being interviewed for a newspaper story, and he's enjoying it about as much as he would a root canal. His answers are short and monotone, and there are long pauses after each question. His family had warned that this would be the case, especially if he was asked to talk about his least favorite subject.
“He never likes to talk about himself,” says his mother Roxann from her home in American Fork. “He’s never been one for attention.”
Sorensen has no one to blame but himself. If he weren’t providing one of the best feel-good, underdog stories of the season, he wouldn’t be getting such attention. He was an undrafted free agent in 2014. Not even agents would touch him, but Andy Reid, the head coach of the Chiefs and a former BYU coach, personally invited him to camp.
Sorensen made the team.
And then he didn’t.
He began his NFL career with one of the worst performances of his career and was demoted to the practice squad.
So here he is three years later, making a name for himself as a safety and special teams player. He’s technically a dime back — a sixth defensive back whose importance has increased dramatically in the passing era. Sorensen is employed in passing situations and usually when opponents use three-receiver sets.
So far this season, he has 34 solo tackles — sixth-best on the team — five assists, one sack and two interceptions. Meanwhile, the Chiefs own the fourth-best record in the NFL (8-3) and are seemingly headed for a playoff berth after a huge overtime win over the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Even the taciturn Sorensen is moved to temporary articulation when he considers where he has landed. “It’s a dream come true to be doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I think about it every day. I’m very fortunate. It’s very surreal.”
Sorensen drew national attention for his performance against the New Orleans Saints in the sixth game of the season. He intercepted a tipped pass in the first quarter and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown to give the Chiefs a 14-7 lead. Saints quarterback Drew Brees called it a “swing that determined the game.” Sorensen also sacked Brees — the only sack of the game — and had six solo tackles and a pass deflection. The Chiefs won, 27-21.
Eric Berry, the Chiefs star safety, told reporters afterward, “We ask him to do a lot of things and he does them very well … I like to call him a ballplayer, man. Run or pass, it doesn’t matter.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of respect that Sorensen has earned a couple of nicknames. Last season the Ravens ran a fake punt against the Chiefs. Sorensen wasn’t fooled — he tackled the punter two yards short of the first down. Afterward, he leaped to his feet, pumped his fist and shouted as he stood over his opponent.
Later, when his teammates were watching video of the game, they laughed when they saw Sorensen — the sedate, clean-cut, non-swearing former Mormon missionary — behaving with such excitement and aggression. “What are you saying?!” his teammates teased. “We’re going to call you ‘Dirty Dan.’ ” After Sorensen returned the Brees interception for a touchdown his teammates chanted “Dirty Dan!” on the sideline.
Cornerback Marcus Peters recently told SiriusXM radio that Sorensen has a second nickname. "We call him 'Stone' because anytime he bodies someone up, they get stoned!"
It’s not difficult to trace the source of Sorensen’s athleticism. His father Kory was a four-sport athlete at Provo High. He was offered a football scholarship to Dixie but wound up playing basketball for Utah Technical College (now Utah Valley University), where his father, Wilson, was the school’s president. Kory’s brother Kim was a standout prep basketball player. Roxann’s father, Stan Gleave, played basketball and baseball for BYU for a couple of years in the early '50s.
The union of Kory and Roxann produced six children — Trevan, Cody, Emily, Bryan, Brad and Dan. The five brothers were all Eagle scouts, LDS Church missionaries and outstanding football players (Emily played high school basketball and volleyball).
“We had a lot of broken bones, broken windows and hurt feelings,” says Roxann.
They all aspired to play for BYU, but only one was offered a scholarship. “The BYU coaches came by but they told all my boys no,” says Roxann.
Trevan played tight end and defensive end for UNLV before injuries ended his career. Cody played wide receiver for the University of Utah. Bryan played tight end for San Bernardino Valley College and was a junior college All-American.
Brad, who is 6-foot-5, played one year with Bryan at Valley and then walked on at BYU. Finding himself buried on the depth chart behind Jake Heaps, Riley Nelson and James Lark, he transferred to Southern Utah a year later and became a star. He set virtually every SUU passing record, finishing with 9,445 yards and 61 touchdowns in three seasons. In 2013, he became the first SUU player to be chosen in the NFL draft — in the seventh round by the San Diego Chargers.
He was on the Chargers’ active roster for his rookie season and then alternated between the practice squad and the active roster for another year before he was released. After a brief stay with the Titans, he was signed again by the Chargers and spent another season on the practice squad before being released again. He signed with the Vikings this fall but was quickly released, and now he sells insurance in Utah.
Trevan, Cody, Bryan and Brad — these were the large, athletic boy-men with whom Dan tangled on a daily basis in his youth. He was 11 years younger than Trevan, and he was always an underdog in their daily backyard games of basketball and football.
As Brad tells it, “He was constantly beat up on and that makes you tougher and stronger. He was eight years old playing with older brothers and getting knocked around. I think it only helped him. He’s been an underdog his whole life and he was again in the NFL.”
Dan Sorensen, the shortest of the brothers at just under 6-foot-2, was a versatile player for Colton High and rarely left the field. “He was always a good hitter,” says Kory. “That’s what he was known for.” He played safety, receiver, punter and backup quarterback, earning all-conference honors on both offense and defense. As a junior, he accepted a scholarship from BYU.
There is one story that has become almost an urban legend. Sorensen was at the bottom of the depth chart as a BYU freshman and not getting any reps. In phone calls home, he complained that, aside from drills, all he did was take a knee during practice. He was the kid again, trying to play with the big boys, just as he was at home.
The day before the team’s first fall scrimmage, he told his parents, “I’m just going to go out there and hit someone as hard as I can.“ He delivered a hit that was so hard it broke his helmet and dented his facemask. He continued to play anyway, with the damaged helmet sitting askew on his head.
The coaches moved him to linebacker and he played in all 12 games, mostly on special teams. Two years later, when he returned from his mission, the coaches looked at him and his 190 pounds — down 40 pounds since they had last seen him — and moved him back to safety.
For the next three years he collected 200-plus tackles, eight interceptions and a school-record 23 pass deflections. Voted team captain, he earned a reputation as a hitter. During his junior year he ranked second in tackles on a defense that ranked third nationally.
When he saw his brother selected in the 2013 NFL draft, Sorensen began to think he might have a shot to play at that level.
“I thought, I grew up with this kid; if he can do it, I can do it,” he recalls.
Word drifted back to him from coaches that NFL scouts inquired about him, and he was invited to the NFL Combine. He produced a modest time of 4.67 in the 40-yard dash, but he was among the fastest for the shuttle and cone drills.
Still, he had trouble finding an agent to represent him; usually the agents pursue the athletes, but Sorensen pursued agents and many of them flat turned him down, believing there wasn’t much of a market for white safeties from BYU. But Sorensen was still convinced he was going to be drafted. He held a draft party — and wasn’t drafted.
“They had rented a building and there was food,” says Roxann. “When he didn’t get drafted, he was embarrassed — embarrassed and mad.”
Immediately after the draft, Sorensen received a call from Reid and the Chiefs signed him to a free-agent deal. It is difficult to make an NFL roster as a free agent — for one thing, teams invest a lot of money and time in draft choices — but not as difficult as you might suppose.
In 2014, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that 456 undrafted players were on opening-week rosters, including 64 rookies (out of a total of about 2,000 players). Despite all of the video, televised games and available information, teams still overlook talented players.
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, being in the right place at the right time,” says Sorensen.
Sorensen was presented an early opportunity when Berry was sidelined by an injury. He started in his place for four preseason games and won a spot on the active roster for the opening game — and then got worked over in a loss to the Tennessee Titans. Among other gaffes, he jumped offside while trying to block a punt and failed to make a block when the Chiefs ran their own fake punt.
“They threw him in the fire,” says Kory.
The Chiefs demoted him to the practice squad, which is where he stayed for seven weeks.
“I didn’t have a good special teams game — one of my worst,” he says. “They decided I wasn’t ready; I needed more time. I was discouraged. In a way you’re being fired. The practice squad is a week-to-week deal. You could be there one week and gone the next.”
Brad says his brother is “wired differently” than most people. He’s intense and serious and he looks for any edge he can gain, no matter how insignificant it might seem — every meal, every workout, every meeting, every film session.
“When you’re around him, you see it,” says Brad.
Take his diet, for instance: Water instead of juice. No eating at night. No dessert. No pop. And lately: No carbohydrates. Even in the offseason. “It’s hard in the off-season,” says Brad. “We have family get-togethers and we might have sandwiches or potatoes and breads and he won’t eat them. We all notice it. But if he thinks something is going to give him any sort of an edge, even the smallest detail, he’ll do it.”
Even on the team charter, while his teammates are downing snacks and candy, he abstains. “He just thinks they can get away with that, but he has to be careful,” says Roxann.
While Sorensen was on the practice squad, the team would practice till noon on Friday or Saturday and then hold meetings, pack up and leave for a road trip or rest for a home game. As soon as meetings were over, Sorensen would get dressed again and put himself through a private second practice — more drills, more film, more weights. On game day, he returned to the team facility for more of the same.
“He says he has to work twice as hard as everyone else,” says Roxann.
It was during this time that Sorensen determined to earn his way back onto the active roster through special teams. He believed that was the one way he could make himself valuable to the team. “That’s what I worked on when I was on the practice squad,” he says. He was reactivated for the final eight games of his rookie season and played on all of the special teams. The last two seasons he has played on all special teams and worked his way into the defensive lineup.
“He is a heck of a special teams player .... I think that carries over to defensive play because you have to be intense in special teams play,” Berry told reporters. “I feel like he brings that to our defense.”
The 26-year-old Sorensen has found a role on the Chiefs, but it’s still business as usual. He arrives early to watch film and prepare for practice. Between meetings he tries to watch more film with his teammates, imagining himself in certain situations and planning his response.
“I’m always trying to improve in every area,” he says. “Eat well. Keep my body in the best shape I can. Study harder. Practice better. Make the most of my time. If I’m going to be at the practice facility, I’m going to make good use of it.”
After Sorensen’s return against the Saints, Reid referenced his work ethic when he told reporters, “The guy works so hard that you’re glad that happened.”
“I’m not at all surprised by what’s happened,” says Brad. “When you grow up with him, you get an idea of his work ethic. He deserves every bit of this.”
Brad, two years older than Dan, saw his brother from the opposing sideline frequently because the Chargers and Chiefs share the same division. Now he’s a spectator, critic and supporter.
“He watches the games and sends text messages about things he saw or questions,” says Dan. “I’ll call him during the week and talk about it.”
Dan also talks regularly to his father. Every day after practice he calls his dad during his half-hour drive home. Kory was diagnosed with Parkinson's a year ago, so he retired and he and Roxann moved back to Utah to be near family.
“He looks forward to those calls to find out what’s going on,” says Roxann.
“He’s got his good days and his bad days,” says Dan. “We look forward to talking a little football each day. It’s a good time to spend with him.”
Sorensen, meanwhile, is working overtime to keep his edge and his place in the NFL, still the underdog little brother competing against the big boys.